Linux Advantages and Disadvantages: Part 1
This is the first article in a series on the advantages (and disadvantages) of Linux desktops over alternatives. While our magazine is all about how to accomplish things with Linux on your desktop, it is important that the why side is also addressed.
There are lots of studies of such issues as stability, security, performance, and reliability of Linux vs. Microsoft Windows. They can roughly be divided into two lists:
- Studies paid for by Microsoft
- Studies that conclude Linux wins
Now, before you get excited that I am about to trash the other guys, this is stuff I won't bother you with. Read what you want. Then, if you feel Linux will favorably address your issues, you are ready to start reading here.
I assert that the biggest practical concern is whether Linux will do what you need on the desktop. Rather than, once again, get into a discussion of studies, it is much more direct to just see what you want to do and then see if the tools to do it are available for Linux. Any other approach is more like concluding you can't own a car made anywhere but the U.S. because you don't have metric tools.
If you look at how desktop computers are used in a bank, you will likely find them doing four tasks and only four tasks:
- Word processing
- Running a terminal emulator to access a database
Let's start here and see if Linux is ready for this environment.
Word processing is clearly a non-issue. Many Microsoft Windows users are already switching from Word to OpenOffice.org. OO.org offers compatibility to handle Word documents, a familiar interface and a non-proprietary file format as an alternative to Microsoft's .doc format.
The advantages of OO.org go way beyond this, however. With Word, it is common for a whole company to have to make a costly upgrade so that older systems can read documents created with newer versions of Word. This is a good sales approach for Microsoft but it is both costly and troublesome to desktop users and their administrators. As OO.org is free, there is no financial advantage for introducing incompatibilities.
A second advantage is security. For example, the quick save option of Word has resulted in many embarrassments and some serious security problems. Imagine someone taking a love letter to their girlfriend, deleting the text and then writing work correspondence. The quick saved file will contain the original letter and then the transactions to update it to the new letter. Enough said.
File size is another issue. Word documents tend to be much larger than the text they contain. This means more disk space, more complicated backups and, if you email these documents, slower email transfers and/or the need for more bandwidth.
On the matter of choice, in an environment where compatibility with Word documents is less of an issue, KWord and AbiWord are worth taking a look at. Smaller that OO.org, these free products generally do everything that is needed in an office environment.
Spreadsheets are, once again, addressed by OO.org. There isn't much to say here other than they work and users will find a familiar look and feel.
Email is the most complicated on this list--not because Linux doesn't offer an excellent email client but because it includes so many. In a business environment, this decision should be a global one. That is, everyone should be using the same email client. Choices include Mozilla Thunderbird and, Opera's built-in mail capabilities as well as many stand-alone choices. The two most popular are Evolution and KMail.
Evolution is a functional clone of Microsoft's Outlook Express. If that is the current environment you are using, Evolution is the most likely solution for you. On the other hand, if you just need a clean email client, take a look at KMail.
In many business environments, encrypted email is a necessity. PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) is the standard for mail encryption. gpg, an "under the hood" program is a free tool which is compatible with PGP. You don't have to learn how to work with gpg directly, Kgpg can be used to manage your encryption keys and interacts well with KMail as well as other clients.
The last item is a terminal emulator. This is just a program that makes a portion of your display act like an old CRT terminal. Much banking software which actually does the transactions runs in text mode in such a window. Most of the rest just requires a web browser.
There are two reasons for this. First, it means the application program can be independent of the computer being used by the bank employee accessing it and, equally important, it is more efficient for the person using it. Teller transactions, for example, are usually no more than entering account numbers, amounts and a few special key presses to send the transaction on its way. A graphical/mouse-based alternative significantly increases the amount of time the teller must spend to perform the transaction.
There are no shortages of answers here. There will be different default terminal emulators depending on your Linux configuration but any of them should satisfy the needs of these database applications. The same is true for web browsers which include Konqueror which is part of the KDE suite, Mozilla, FireFox and Opera.
You may not be running a bank but it is a well-defined business so I felt it a good choice for a place to start. The whole point is to sit down and figure out your requirements and then see if Linux offers a solution.
In the next article I will be addressing the differences to the user between Linux and other systems you have used.